Girl Scouts release new body image campaign

Palmer, Henderson, Miller and Sims pose for the Girl Scouts. Text: "Changing the face of fashion" - Top models tell their stories!You might remember that a few months ago, the Girl Scouts Research Institute released some findings about young women and fashion. The findings revealed some alarming things about how images of fashion models and other media representations of women’s bodies affect the self image of the girls consuming them. Part of the problem, it seemed, was that even though girls and young women knew that the bodies being presented to them by fashion magazines were unrealistic and in some cases unhealthy, they aspired to look like those models all the same.

The problem, in other words, was the cognitive dissonance between what the girls and young women knew and what they wanted. The result was that even though they knew it wasn’t good for them, they were crash dieting and over-exercising and otherwise hurting themselves in order to look more like models. At the time, I concluded that based on these findings, media literacy – teaching young women to be critical of airbrushing and lack of fashion industry diversity – isn’t enough. It’s certainly an important start to educate girls and young women about the prevalence of photoshopping and the wholesale reconstruction of a model’s body in post-production. It’s crucial to teach girls about the dangers of trying to achieve a body shape or size that naturally isn’t your own. But as long as that body shape is held up as the only one our culture recognizes as beautiful, this gap between knowledge and behavior will remain. Until we change our cultural ideas about what’s beautiful, girls and young women will try to achieve the current, narrow version of “beauty,” even if they know it’s bad for them.

It seems that the Girl Scouts recognized this disconnect too, because now, in partnership with the Dove Self Esteem Fund, the Girl Scouts have launched a new campaign called “Changing the Face of Fashion.” According to their creative director Catherine Westergaard, the campaign “is all about redefining beauty, celebrating the new diverse faces of fashion, and making girls feel confident.” The campaign features four racially diverse plus-size women, all models, talking about what it’s like to be a plus-size model, what it means to be beautiful, and so on.

Here’s their main PSA (transcript below the jump):

It’s pretty good, but even better are the videos on the Girl Scouts website that showcase the individual women, telling the stories of how they became plus-size models and how they came to feel beautiful after years without positive media reinforcement.

Julie Henderson was in the ROTC program in high school and was on the verge of signing up to become a fighter pilot, when she changed her mind and decided to pursue professional basketball instead. Now, she’s a plus-size model. Anansa Sims, when asked what she’d be doing if she weren’t a model, said, “I would be a financial analyst. Growing up in school, math was always my favorite subject, and I majored in finance in college, so that was really the path I was going on.”

It’s refreshing to see models depicted as whole people: not just as human coat hangers, but as smart, talented and ambitious women who also happen to be professionally pretty. As much as I dislike the idea of fashion models standing in as role models for young women, if it’s going to happen – and it is, whether I like it or not – these are the kind of models I want in that position. These are fashion models who have their heads screwed on, who don’t say stupid, damaging things like “nothing tastes as good as skinny feels,” and who take seriously their responsibilities as role models, intentional or otherwise.

Lizzie Miller – the woman famous for revealing to Glamour readers last year that models have bellies, too – makes an interesting comment in her video. After talking about how she never thought of modeling as a possible career because she had only ever seen skinny models, she mentions that seeing women like Beyonce and JLo rise to prominence gave her confidence because “they kinda look like me.” Later, when she’s talking about inner beauty, though, she says that “it really comes from the inside; if you feel beautiful, people will see you as beautiful.” This is partly true, of course, but her own comments about JLo and Beyonce reveal that this is a two-way street, or perhaps a mild case of the Catch-22s: people will see you as beautiful if you do, but it’s a lot easier to see yourself as beautiful if other people do.  Which is why, of course, it’s so important for girls and young women to be able to see themselves, even just a little bit, in models and actresses. As Leona Palmer’s mother pointed out to her when she had the chance to become a model, if Palmer had been fourteen or fifteen and seen women who looked like she did in magazines, “it would have changed [her] whole life.”

Of course, despite the racial diversity in the line-up and despite the fact that four models are plus-size, they are also all cis-gendered and able-bodied. There aren’t any women of Native American, Asian, South Asian or Middle Eastern descent. They all have long, flowing hair and adhere to a pretty “womanly” definition of female beauty – there’s no androgyny or ambiguity here. So if our goal is to see a sustainable, genuinely diverse range of media representations of women’s bodies, we can’t pretend that we’ve reached it yet. But we should also recognize that the fact that these women are working as models and being tapped as part of the future of the fashion industry is progress, to be celebrated and encouraged (and imitated).

So, here’s hoping that these four women, and other models-turned-role-models like them, will make it into magazines. Here’s hoping that they’ll continue to spread, both overtly and covertly, the message that beauty comes in all shapes and sizes. Because like Palmer’s mother says, if girls grow up seeing bodies like their own included in our cultural definition of beauty, whole lives can be changed.

Transcript:

Leona Palmer: According to the Girl Scouts Research Institute

Anansa Sims: Nine out of ten girls

Lizzie Miller: Say that fashion and the media

Julie Henderson: Puts a lot of pressure on them to be thin

LM: And 31%

LP: Admit to starving themselves or refusing to eat to lose weight

AS: Together, we can change this story

LM: And show our girls

AS: That it’s our differences

JH: That make us beautiful

LP: Log on to www.girlscouts.org/itsyourstory

LM: To hear more

New York, NY

Chloe Angyal is a journalist and scholar of popular culture from Sydney, Australia. She joined the Feministing team in 2009. Her writing about politics and popular culture has been published in The Atlantic, The Guardian, New York magazine, Reuters, The LA Times and many other outlets in the US, Australia, UK, and France. She makes regular appearances on radio and television in the US and Australia. She has an AB in Sociology from Princeton University and a PhD in Arts and Media from the University of New South Wales. Her academic work focuses on Hollywood romantic comedies; her doctoral thesis was about how the genre depicts gender, sex, and power, and grew out of a series she wrote for Feministing, the Feministing Rom Com Review. Chloe is a Senior Facilitator at The OpEd Project and a Senior Advisor to The Harry Potter Alliance. You can read more of her writing at chloesangyal.com

Chloe Angyal is a journalist and scholar of popular culture from Sydney, Australia.

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Join the Conversation

  • http://cabaretic.blogspot.com nazza

    I often wonder who drives fashion. Is it a systemic thing purely, or is it a result of influential people?

    I’ve often wanted to make this remark, and understand without offense if it doesn’t get past moderation. This may be controversial, but I wonder sometimes if the influence of queer men explains why women are to conform to a standard more realistic with men. If one examines a sculpture by Michelangelo, for example, even the “women” he created were little more than men with crucial feminine body parts added as almost an afterthought.

    So the question then becomes yet again how one pushes back to reclaim healthy femininity and with it a body image that is womanly and feasible.

    • http://feministing.com/members/sclaires/ Claire

      I don’t think it’s gay/queer men in the fashion industry; I think it’s our society’s rejection of the feminine. I think that curvy, voluptuous bodies on display make people in society uncomfortable because they are so unabashedly feminine.

      Also, our society, I think that voluptuous women’s bodies are seen as being intrinsically super-sexual, almost grotesquely so, and our society was founded by puritans…

      Bottom line, it’s a rejection of what people see as being “excessive”. Pretty fucked up way to think about human beings: “there’s too much of you.”

  • http://feministing.com/members/sclaires/ Claire

    While I do feel like promoting the idea that being “curvy” is beautiful, this campaign still doesn’t really work for me. These are still models. They are exceptionally beautiful, well-proportioned, with beautiful skin, etc.etc.etc. Women that look like them, while possibly more plentiful than those that look like size 0 models, are still in the minority. Girls will still look at them and not feel quite good enough.

    • http://feministing.com/members/civility/ Calvin

      I see where you’re coming from, but I think I see where they’re coming from as well. Perhaps they’re conceptualizing change in body issues as incremental – they still can’t sell their message if they use conventionally plain or ugly models, but at least they can change one crucial variable (weight) and move things in that direction. Once people are more used to diversity in weight, then they could push the envelope further.

      • http://feministing.com/members/shoshie/ Shoshie

        Right. “Diversity” in weight.

  • http://feministing.com/members/shoshie/ Shoshie

    Whenever I saw campaigns like this, I would get really depressed. Like, these are the fat women? I must be a gargantuan. Mainstream body positivity would never show women who look like me. If thin to average sized girls feel ashamed of their bodies, it’s a travesty. If fat girls feel ashamed of their bodies, it’s “motivation.”

    • http://feministing.com/members/kelsy/ kelsy

      “Like, these are the fat women? I must be a gargantuan.”

      I completely hear what you’re saying. These women may be ‘plus-size models’ but they are certainly not plus-size women. I think it’s depressing that there has to be such a gap between the two.

      This is a step in the right direction, sure… but a small one. As others have said, young girls are still being told to look up to models, and it’s not great that the models they’re being told to look up to are being touted as ‘plus-size’ while actually sporting quite slender bodies. This seems to reinforce already established notions that if you’re thin, you’re probably not thin enough, and if you aren’t thin, then you’re REALLY not thin enough because these models are supposedly modelling what ‘overweight’ should look like.

      That said, it’s nice to see some (albeit not very much) diversity in shape… I just wish that they’d used four women who had radically different bodies rather than four who look to be relatively close in size. Without doing that, it just feels as though this ad is denying that we should be one kind of thin, and advising us to be another kind.

  • http://feministing.com/members/purplesummer/ Lisa

    I have mix views on the campaign. On one hand, I am glad they are addressing the issue of body image however they should have picked a diverse group of women. They could have had one model but had women in other careers as well. Why not do a survey asking girls what they want to become (doctors, vets, teachers, actors, whatever) and get a group of diverse women with different jobs, body types, personalities,etc. to show girls that being a model is not everything and we shouldn’t have to strive to look like models? We should strive to do what we want to do with our lives. I do not see this campaign as diverse. Where are actual plus size models, where are darker skinned models, where are the models from different cultures/backgrounds, etc? I think this is a good start but it needs to be taken multiple steps further to be more beneficial to girls.

  • http://feministing.com/members/stivee/ Erin

    Those are women are considered plus-size models? Good grief.

  • http://feministing.com/members/geekgrrl/ Hannah

    That’s considered plus-size? They look average-healthy-size to me. This ad will not work very well at targeting girls of all sizes and races.

  • http://feministing.com/members/secondaura/ Laura

    I agree with the people who notice that these models are hardly “plus sizes” in that none of them seem to be above the average dress size of a female. They are however, noticibly larger than most models seen in mainstream advertising and catwalks. This can only be a good thing. It shows anyone who is watching that a variation of the stereotypical skinny model can be seen as being beautiful too. In fact I think it’s a great start but there’s still a lot of work to be done. I want more variation!

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